Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art

Icons in Liturgy and Culture:
The Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art

Patrick Comerford


I don’t know how many of you have watched the way people have been viewing the exhibition here rather than viewing the exhibition itself. (The exhibition, “Icons in Transformation,” at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is running from 11 June to 19 July 2009). But it is part of the reviewers’ art to watch both the exhibition and those who view the exhibition.

1: The Exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, earlier this year

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Athens News to review the exhibition, “Byzantium 330-1453,” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London [Illustration 1].

In the English-speaking world, Byzantium represents political intrigue and decadence, on the one hand, or, on the other, the height of cultural achievement and spiritual awakening. For W.B. Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, it embodied the mystery and splendour of our culture:

… I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium …

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, organised in conjunction with the Benaki Museum in Athens, was the first major exhibition of its kind in Britain for half a century. It was interesting to watch visitors as they followed a chronological path, from the foundation of the city by Constantine in 330 to its fall in 1453, through a variety of themes as they explored the origins of Byzantium, the rise of Constantinople, the ravages of iconoclasm, the post-iconoclast revival, the great crescendo in the Middle Ages, and the close links between Byzantine and early Renaissance art in Italy.

The exhibition opened appropriately with visitors standing beneath a large 13th or 14th century copper chandelier or choros that once hung in the central dome of a Byzantine basilica or church – a first reminder that Byzantium was essentially enlightened by the light of Christianity and enriched by the liturgy, icons, rituals and music.

It is too easy to mourn that so much of Byzantium was either first destroyed by the iconoclasts or later dispersed throughout the world. But the imaginative selection of works from across the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans and Europe and beyond shows the far-spread influence of Byzantium.

As they came towards the end, many visitors thought the collection of Russian works – including an embroidered icon from Moscow, woven to advance the city’s claim to be the Third Rome – was providing the historical departure point for the exhibition. Instead, just as it opened with a realisation of the over-arching influences of the liturgy on Byzantine life, the exhibition closed with a dramatic presentation from the place of greatest splendour for iconography with a collection of icons from Mount Sinai.

As an unexpected consequence of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640-642, iconography survived iconoclasm on Mount Sinai, and Saint Catherine’s went on to contribute to a new flowering of iconography and to western art through the Sinaitic School of Saint Catherine in Iraklion on Crete.

2: The icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai ... one of the earliest known icons

Of course, one of the earliest icons [Illustration 2] we know is from Mount Sinai: the image of Christ the Pantocrator is synonymous with Mount Sinai, and a copy of it hangs in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

3: The Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos

Many of the icons from Mount Sinai at the exhibition are larger than life. Appropriately, the final treasure was the 12th century icon, The Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos [Illustration 3]. It is so well-known, viewers were visibly amazed that this work is so small (41.1 x 29.1 cm). Yet this one small icon is a reminder that the secret in Byzantium’s splendour lies in its ability to bridge the chasm between earth and heaven.

4: Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Following the Arab and Islamic conquest of Mount Sinai, the Christian integrity of Saint Catherine’s was protected and guaranteed, supposedly through a personal firmat or achtiname issued by the Muslim Prophet Muhammad himself and a copy is still on display in the monastery library. [Illustration 4] As a consequence, as other centres of Orthodoxy suffered or waned under Islamic occupation, schism and heresy, including the three historic patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – even as Constantinople fell first to the Crusaders and later to the Ottomans – Sinai was protected and prospered. The icon school on Mount Sinai survived through the iconoclast controversy (730-843), an irony of history – given that this was due to the protection of Egyptian Muslim rulers who themselves were iconoclasts.

Mount Sinai was popular with Western pilgrims since at least 383-384, as we know from the accounts of the Spanish nun, Egeria. This Western interest continued with the so-called Piacenza pilgrim (ca 570). In 1099, Sinai came under the tutelage of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and this and the rise of the cult of Saint Catherine in the West, increased the popularity of Sinai to Western or Latin pilgrims.

After the Fourth Crusade (1204), the Venetians became the dominant force in large parts of the Byzantine Empire and took possession of the Sinaiatic dependencies in Crete, Cyprus, Antioch, Latakia, Jerusalem and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. This opened a crucial interface between Venice and the Sinaitic tradition, that found the height of its expression in subsequent generations in Crete, and would bring an immense Byzantine influence on Western art through Cretan masters, especially Theophanes the Cretan, Mikhail Damaskinos and, of course, El Greco.

This two-way movement between Venice and Sinai had an influence on icon writing in Saint Catherine’s. Such an impressive number of icons were written in the monastery from the 13th century on adopting Western elements that it has even suggested by some that they were written by Crusader artists who had settled in the monastery. And this was two-way traffic, so that, for example, in the late 14th century the Catalan consul in Damascus commissioned Martinus de Vilanova of Barcelona to write an altar panel for the monastery depicting Saint Catherine.

Orthodox Christians in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean generously endowed Saint Catherine’s, transferring lands, monasteries, city properties and churches. One of the best-known examples of these endowments comes from the island of Crete, which was occupied by the Venetians from 1204 until 1669, and which was one of the last Greek islands in what is now the modern Hellenic state, to have fallen to the Ottoman Turks.

5: Saint Catherine’s Square, Iraklion

In the middle of the Cretan capital, Iraklion, Saint Catherine’s Square [Illustration 5] is a pleasant oasis in this bustling port city. Towering over the square is Saint Minas Cathedral, which can hold a congregation of 8,000 and is the largest cathedral in Greece. It is so large you might miss the tiny Church of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites (Αγία Αικατερίνη) in the north-east corner of the square.

6: Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion, was a metocheion or dependency of Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai

For centuries, Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Iraklion was a metocheion or dependency of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. It was founded around the 10th century and today’s church stands on the site of the monastery’s katholikon or main church. [Illustration 6] The present church was built in the 16th century and is obviously influenced by Venetian architecture.

By the 16th century, Saint Catherine’s was supporting a large monastic community. Between 1550 and 1640, the School of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites became a centre of learning, teaching Classical Greek, philosophy, theology, rhetoric and art, with many of its graduates distinguishing themselves in Greek arts and literature, including the writers Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1614), author of the epic poem Erotokritos, and Georgios Chortatzis from Rethymnon, author of Erophile, and the musician and composer Frangiskos Leontaritis, who made his career in Venice and Vienna.

When Iraklion fell to the Turks in 1669, the church was converted into the Zulfikar Ali Pasha Mosque. It continued as a mosque until the last Muslims left Iraklion in 1922, during the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. In 1924, Saint Catherine’s Church was transferred from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Minas. Although now used as a museum, it remains a consecrated church, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the church every year on 25 November, the feast of Saint Catherine.

Since 1967, Saint Catherine’s Church has housed the Museum of Religious Art, with its unique collection of Byzantine icons, manuscripts, vestments, and wall paintings, representing six centuries of Orthodox history, from the 14th to the 19th century, including six unique works by the famous icon-writer Michael Damaskinos, a major exponent of the Cretan School.

The Cretan School of Icon-Writing

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, there was an exodus of Byzantine scholars and artists, especially to Venice. The émigrés were grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They reintroduced the teaching of the Greek language to their western counterparts, and brought with them Classical texts that were printed on the first printing presses for Greek books in Venice in 1499.

7: Noli me tangere, an early Cretan icon in Venice

One of the earliest works of a Byzantine icon-writer in Venice may be the icon Noli me tangere (Μη μου άπτου, 84 X 73 cm) [Illustration 7] by an unknown icon-writer from Crete at the beginning of the 16th century. In this work, the Risen Christ is depicted in traditional Cretan style, with a fine face and the gold paint on his clothes radiating light, while Mary Magdalene is painted in a Western style that is redolent of Bassano.

This migration of Byzantine scholars and other émigrés helped to trigger the revival of Greek and Roman studies, arts and sciences, and is a key to understanding the development of the Italian Renaissance humanism. Without this reintroduction of patristic texts – and their rapid dissemination because of the development of printing – would the Reformation that followed in the decades immediately after been more than a damp squid?

But I digress. Byzantine scholars also arrived in great numbers in Venetian-ruled Crete, bringing with them their own approach to icon-writing.

In the decades that followed, the interaction between Venice and Crete saw the introduction of some aspects of Renaissance Italian art to Crete, especially in the areas of technique and subject-matter. These were amalgamated into the Byzantine tradition, and gave rise in the 16th and 17th centuries to an entirely novel style known as the Cretan School of Icon-Writing. By 1600, Iraklion had 20,000 inhabitants and 200 painters – a proportion that indicates how the arts were then flourishing in Crete. All this came to a violent end with the fall of Iraklion to the Turks in 1669.

The main features in this school included the perfection of figures, which are depicted in more human form, and the attention to detail, rendered in rich colours. It was against this background that the greatest artists in Iraklion emerged. They included:

● Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559).

● Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593).

● Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608)

● Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco.

Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559)

8: Epitaphios by Theophanes the Cretan

Theophanis Strelitzas (Θεοφάνης Στρελίτζας), also known as Theophanes the Cretan (Θεοφάνης ο Κρης) or Theophanes Bathas, was a leading icon writer of the Cretan School in the first half of the 16th century, and the most important figure in Greek wall-painting of the period.

He was born in Iraklion (date unknown), and trained there as an icon-writer. Theophanes was active from about 1527 to 1548, all his known work was carried out in mainland Greece rather than on Crete, and he trained his sons and several pupils, many of them from Crete. By 1535, Theophanes and his two sons, Symeon and Neophytos, had become monks in the Great Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos, where many of his best works remain. His icons can be found in the Great Lavra (1535), Ivrion (1535-1545), Pantokrator (1535-1545), Stavronikita (1545-1546), and Gregoriou (ca 1546). Many of these were seen by the outside world for the first time at the exhibition, “Treasures of Mount Athos,” in Thessaloniki in 1997. Theophanes also wrote many panel icons, either for iconostases or small portable works, before returning to Crete, where he died in 1559.

9: The Mystical Supper by Theophanes the Cretan

His signed frescoes can be seen on Mount Athos, especially in Stavronikita (Epitpahios and The Mystical Supper) [Illustration 9] and the Great Lavra, and in Meteora, which has his earliest dated work (1527). Two detached wall-paintings attributed to him are in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

While Theophanes and his sons were working on the Holy Mountain, a number of other icon writers from Crete were working on Mount Athos too, including a painter named Zorzis, while many Cretan icons were brought to Mount Athos, including works by the priest Euphrosynos and Michael Damaskinos. Through these influences, the output of icon workshops in the Athonite monasteries was strongly influenced by the iconographical types of the Cretan school.

Like most Cretan painters of this date, Theophanes was influenced in part by Western painting, although in his case this is less so. He used traditional Byzantine compositions, in a rather austere and powerful manner. But some of his faces are personalised or looking out at the viewer and his figures are modelled to convey volume. His work is more conscious of visual perspective than older Byzantine artists, but he does not use the schemes of geometrical perspective that had become standard in the West by then.

Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608):

10: The Second Coming by Georgios Klontzas

Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόντζας) also worked in Venice. His icon, The Second Coming (Η Δευτέρα Παρουσία, 127 X 96 cm) [Illustration 10] in the Museum of Icons in the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice, across the courtyard from San Giorgio, is of inestimable artistic value.

11: Detail from The Second Coming by Georgios Klontzas

In this icon, Klontzas shows Christ on high with the Apostles as he judges the Saints who come forward together. In the lower part is the Resurrection of the Dead, and on the right is Hell. [Illustration 11] The figures of the righteous are painted within an atmosphere of quiet expectation. The faces, clothes, naked bodies, books, thrones, and building are painted in marvellously warm colours.

12: Triptych by Georgios Klontzas

A related masterpiece by Klontzas in this museum is his Triptych (67 X 79 cm) [Illustration 12].

13: Detail from Triptych by Georgios Klontzas

The inner part of all three leaves also depicts the Second Coming of Christ in great detail, while medallions on the upper part contain 15 miniatures of the Creation story. [Illustration 13]

The outside leaves tell the story of the Dormition or Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

14: In thee rejoiceth, by Georgios Klontzas

His icon of the hymn In thee rejoiceth (Επί σοι χαίρει, 71.5 X 47 cm) [Illustration 14], which blends many themes, is one of the masterpieces of post-Byzantine art. The central figure of the Virgin Mary is surrounded by angels, virgins, saints, scenes from the Akathistos Hymn, and other scenes, including the Miracle of Saint John Chrysostom. Beneath all is the Heavenly Jerusalem. The signature shows the great labour of the artist: “Study and toil of George Klontzas.”

Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593):

The leading exponents of the Cretan School in the second half of the 16th century was Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593). He was born in Iraklion in 1535 and later lived in Venice for many years. It was Damaskinos probably who established the rules of the Cretan School. Six of his icons, originally from the Vrondisi Monastery in Zaros, about 30 miles south of Iraklion, are now on display in Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion. Damaskinos was a near-contemporary of the most famous of all Cretan painters, El Greco, and is believed by many to have been El Greco’s teacher.

Damaskinos was born in Iraklion, the son of Tzortzis Damaskinos; his daughter Antonia later married the painter Yannas Mantoufos.

From 1574, Damaskinos lived in Venice for several years, and from 1577 to 1582 he was a member of the Greek Brotherhood of Venice. There he learnt miniature painting and along with Emmanuel Tzanes he painted the icons and frescoes in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice. At the time, many Greek artists were working in Venice, and the invitation to paint the frescoes of San Giorgio dei Greci is an indication of his particular standing and reputation.

15: San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) in Venice

San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) [Illustration 15] is a church in Castello in Venice. For centuries, despite the extensive interests of Venice in the Byzantine world, the Greek Orthodox community not allowed to celebrate the Liturgy in Venice. However, in 1498, they gained the right to found the Scuola de San Nicolò dei Greci, a Greek confraternity, and in 1539, after protracted negotiations, permission to build San Giorgio. The work, financed by a tax on all ships from the Orthodox world, began in 1548.

16: The Iconostasis in San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice

Many of you probably know the church, east of Saint Mark’s Square, for its leaning bell-tower. The fresco of The Last Judgment (1589-1593) in the dome is the work of John Kyprios, while the iconostasis [Illustration 16] is the work of Kyprios, Thomas Bathas, Benedict Emporios, the Cretan priest and iconographer, Emmanuel Tzane-Bounialis and, most especially, Michael Damaskinos.

From Venice, Damaskinos travelled throughout Italy. By 1584, he was back in Greece, and from then on he worked mainly in Crete and on the Ionian islands. Damaskinos planned to return to Venice to paint the Dome in San Giorgio. But the Venetian authorities refused to allow him to leave Crete, and so Kyprios completed the Dome under Tintoretto’s supervision.

The works of Damaskinos are in the traditional Byzantine style. But, like other masters of the Cretan Renaissance, he mastered both the “Greek manner,” deriving from the Paleologi tradition, and the “Italian manner.” He embraced the technical and iconographic innovations of 15th and 16th century Tuscan and Venetian painters such as Veneziano, Pisanello, Gentile de Fabriano, Titian, Veronese, and, of course, Tintoretto.

Yet he remained stylistically close to his Greek roots. His works are characterised by his particular use of a rose colour. He was also the first icon writer to introduce paler flesh tones into post-Byzantine painting, and this became one of his stylistic features. The dimensions of his figures are defined by only a few brush strokes. An interesting innovation is his thrones, which are wooden rather than the marble that had typified the Cretan School.

17: The Mystical Supper by Michael Damaskinos

His six works in the museum in Iraklion are:

1, The Mystical Supper: [Illustration 17] The Italian manner suffuses this icon from Moni Vrondisi (a copy can be seen above the altar in the Saint Edmund Chapel). But it is mingled with echoes of the Byzantine style, whose anti-naturalistic principles were never abandoned by Damaskinos. The care he takes here in representing objects is worthy of a still-life. A depth of perspective underpins the composition, with the two servants in the foreground, the dogs under the table and the framing function of the architecture.

2, The Women at the Tomb: The principle scene here is Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Although this was a popular scene for Italian artists, Damaskinos presents it in the Byzantine tradition, including his style of the mountains, his narrative sequence of the scenes of different sizes, and the red-letter inscription on his halo, as well as Christ’s detached pose in the foreground. On the other hand, Mary Magdalene’s kneeling posture corresponds to the ideals of beauty found in Italian mannerist art in the 16th century. The similarities between this work and the work from a generation earlier, Noli me tangere, are obvious.

18: The Divine Liturgy by Michael Damaskinos

3, The Divine Liturgy: [Illustration 18] In this icon, dating from 1579-1584, Damaskinos presents his theme in a traditional iconographic interpretation. The Father and the Son are surrounded by seraphim; between them, the altar is draped with a gilded cloth; above them, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Encircling angels are present for the Divine Liturgy.

19: The Virgin with the Burning Bush by Damaskinos

4, The Virgin with the Burning Bush: [Illustration 19] Although the theme of this icon can be found in Italian sources, the Burning Bush is also a natural theme for an icon writer in a school with strong links to Mount Sinai. Byzantine elements abound in the stylised mountains, the presence of Moses in each episode and, in the foreground, the two figures of Moses: the first is erect, listening to the voices of the angels; the second is kneeling to fasten his sandals.

20: The Adoration of the Magi, by Damaskinos

5, The Adoration of the Magi: [Illustration 20] This icon represents the high point of Western influence on Cretan iconography, drawing on Italian presentations of the Nativity rather than Byzantine images of the Magi. And yet there are Byzantine characteristics, for example, in the depiction of the mountain and the detached attitude of Joseph.

6, The Council of Nicaea: This was the last known work by Damaskinos, and is dated 1591. In it we can see his return to traditional techniques and aesthetic norms. Yet the realistic faces and his rendering of the bishops’ veined hands show how he learned and absorbed lessons from Italy.

As was usual for distinguished painters, Damaskinos signed his works: Χειρ Μιχαηλ του Δαμασκηνου or Χειρ Μιχαηλ Δαμασκηνου, Δαμασκηνου Μιχαηλ Χειρ (by the hand Michael Damaskinos) or even Ποιημα Μιχαηλ του Δαμασκηνου (the work of Michael Damaskinos).

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, ‘El Greco’ (1541-1614)

21: Doménikos Theotokópoulos or “El Greco” is closely identified with the Spanish Renaissance

Doménikos Theotokópoulos or “El Greco” (1541-1614) [Illustration 21] is closely identified with the Spanish Renaissance. Yet, as his popular nickname indicates, he was Greek by birth and he normally signed his works with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos).

Theotokópoulos was born in Venetian Crete in 1541, the descendant of a prosperous urban family that had probably been driven out of Chania in western Crete to Iraklion after an uprising against the Venetians in 1526-1528. His father, Geórgios Theotokópoulos (died 1556), was a merchant and tax collector.

There is an ongoing debate about his birthplace. Most authorities say he was born in Iraklion, but many Greeks say he was born in the village of Fodele, west of Iraklion, where villagers point to the ruins of his family home. Some Catholic sources have claimed El Greco from birth, but modern Greek scholars, including Nikolaos Panayotakis, Pandelis Prevelakis and Maria Constantoudaki, have shown that the Theotokópoulos “family was almost certainly Greek Orthodox.” One of his uncles was an Orthodox priest, and his name is not mentioned in the Roman Catholic baptismal archives in Crete.

El Greco received his initial training as an icon-writer at the Cretan School in Saint Catherine’s in Iraklion. In addition, he probably studied the Greek classics. In 1563, at the age of 22, he was described in a document as a “master” (“maestro Domenigo”), meaning he was already a master of the guild and presumably operating his own workshop. Three years later, in June 1566, as a witness to a contract, he signed his name as μαΐστρος Μένεγος Θεοτοκόπουλος σγουράφος (Master Menégos Theotokópoulos, painter – Menegos is the Venetian dialect form of Doménicos, while Sgourafos (σγουράφος = ζωγράφος) is a Greek term for painter).

Archival research in Crete shows that at the age of 26 he was still working in Iraklion, where his work in the post-Byzantine style was highly esteemed. On 26 December 1566, the Venetian authorities gave him permission to sell a “panel of the Passion of Christ executed on a gold background.” That Byzantine-style icon was sold a day later in Iraklion for 70 gold ducats. The two artists who valued the work included the Cretan icon-writer Georgios Klontzas. At the time, 70 ducats was the going price for a work by Titian or Tintoretto.

Soon after, probably early in 1567 at the age of 26, El Greco moved to Venice, like other great Cretan masters before him. But, unlike other Cretan artists in Venice, El Greco substantially altered his style and sought to distinguish himself by inventing new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter. He was influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style of the period, with agile, elongated figures reminiscent of Tintoretto and a chromatic framework that connects him to Titian. According to the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio, El Greco in Venice was a “disciple” of Titian, who was then in his 80s but still active.

The Venetian painters also taught him to organise his multi-figured compositions in landscapes vibrant with atmospheric light, and during his stay in Italy he enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance.

In 1570, he moved to Rome, where his works were strongly marked by his Venetian experiences. By then, Michelangelo and Raphael were dead, and El Greco was determined to make his own mark in Rome. Later, when asked what he thought about Michelangelo, he replied that “he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” When Pope Pius V asked him to consider painting over parts of the Sistine Chapel, he is supposed to have claimed that he could do just as well as Michelangelo while also observing the proprieties.

22, View of Mount Sinai, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

In Rome, he came into contact with the intellectual elite of the city, including Fulvio Orsini, whose collection would later include seven paintings by El Greco, including his View of Mount Sinai and a portrait of Clovio. El Greco’s View of Mount Sinai [Illustration 22] dating from around 1570, is his only work in the Historical Museum in Iraklion, yet it is such an obvious theme for someone from Saint Catherine’s. The painting, in oils on tempera-primed wood, shows an imaginary view of Mount Sinai, with Saint Catherine’s Monastery and a group of pilgrims in the foreground. The misshapen, stylised mountains give a foretaste of his later, elongated style, but are a familiar way of depicting mountains in Byzantine iconography.

23, View of Toledo, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The Byzantine use of space in that work is found forty years later in his View of Toledo [Illustration 23], the first true romantic landscape in the history of art.

24, The Assumption of the Virgin, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

By then, El Greco had acquired enemies in Rome. He may have returned to Venice ca. 1575-1576, but in 1577 he moved to Spain, first to Madrid, and then to Toledo, the religious capital of Spain. He signed contracts for a group of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo and by September 1579 he had completed nine paintings for the church, including his first work in Toledo, The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-1579) [Illustration 24], with his signature in Greek, and The Trinity, now in The Prado in Madrid [Illustration 25].

25, The Trinity, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

These works established El Greco’s reputation in Toledo. According to Hortensio Félix Paravicino, a 17th-century Spanish preacher and poet, “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through Death he began to achieve eternal life.”

26, The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

Subsequent works, including the Allegory of the Holy League or the Adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus and The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, [Illustration 26] violated a basic rule of the Counter-Reformation that in an image the content was paramount rather than the style. Because of this, any hopes he held for royal patronage came to an end and El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo.

27, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

In 1586, he received the commission for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz [Illustration 27], his best-known work. The discovery in 1983 on Syros of The Dormition of the Virgin and its identification as an early work by El Greco places this great masterpiece within the Byzantine tradition of iconography. Christ, clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist in the traditional Orthodox composition of the Deesis. The soul of the dead man is being transported to Heaven in the form of an ethereal infant in accord with Orthodox tradition

28, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

From 1597 to 1613, El Greco was working intensely on several major commissions, including three altar pieces for the Chapel of San José in Toledo (1597-1599); three paintings for the Colegio de Doña María de Aragon in Madrid (1596–1600); the painting Saint Ildefonso for the Capilla Mayor of the Hospital de la Caridad (Hospital of Charity) at Illescas (1603-1605); and The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1607-1613) [Illustration 28].

El Greco lived in considerable style in Toledo, but did he live with his Spanish companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas? We do not know. They probably never married, although she was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, who also became a painter.

El Greco died on 7 April 1614. Two Greek friends had witnessed his last will and testament, showing how El Greco never lost touch with his Greek roots. Although Prevelakis doubts whether El Greco was ever a practicing Roman Catholic, it appears that, as with many other Orthodox migrants in Western Europe at the time, he had transferred to Roman Catholicism, and in his will he described himself as a “devout Catholic.”

The Byzantine legacy inherited by El Greco

Since the beginning of the 20th century, scholars have debated whether his style had Byzantine origins. Some art historians assert that his roots were firmly in the Byzantine tradition, and that his most individual characteristics derive directly from the art of his ancestors.

The Byzantine influence from his training under Damaskinos at Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion, remained an important factor in El Greco’s work throughout his life. His pictures are theological in character rather than religious. He makes a clear distinction between the divine world and the material world, which he shows as separate yet mutually accessible realms.

The primacy of imagination and intuition over the subjective character of creation was a fundamental principle of El Greco’s style. He discarded classicist criteria such as measure and proportion. He believed that grace is the supreme quest of art, but that the painter achieves grace only if he manages to solve the most complex problems with obvious ease.

29, View of Mount Sinai, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

For him, colour was the most important and the most ungovernable element of painting, and he declared that colour had primacy over form. We have seen how his preference for exceptionally tall and slender figures and elongated compositions found early expression in his View of Mount Sinai [Illustration 29].

In these elongated figures, he was marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting. This preference served both his expressive purposes and aesthetic principles, and led him to disregard the laws of nature and to elongate his compositions to ever greater extents, particularly when they were commissioned for altarpieces, so that the human anatomy becomes even more other-worldly in his mature works.

30, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

When he was working on The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception [Illustration 30] for the side-chapel of Isabella Oballe in the Church of Saint Vincent in Toledo (1607-1613), he asked to have the altar piece lengthened by another 4.5 ft “because in this way the form will be perfect and not reduced, which is the worst thing that can happen to a figure.”

Another adaptation of Byzantine influences in El Greco’s work is his use of light, so that “each figure seems to carry its own light within or reflects the light that emanates from an unseen source.”

The English art historian David Davies finds the roots of El Greco’s style in the intellectual sources of his Greek Orthodox education and in his memories of the liturgical and ceremonial life of the Orthodox Church. Davies believes that the religious climate of the Counter-Reformation and the aesthetics of mannerism acted as catalysts to activate his individual technique. Davies asserts that the philosophies of Platonism and Neo-Platonism, the works of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the Patristic texts or writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Orthodox Liturgy offer the keys to understanding El Greco’s style.

33, The Dormition of the Virgin, Syros, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The discovery in 1983 on Syros of the Dormition of the Virgin [Illustration 31] in the church of that name – an authentic, signed icon from the painter’s Cretan period – and earlier, extensive archival research in the early 1960s, have helped to reposition El Greco within the Byzantine and post-Byzantine traditions of icon-writing in Crete. This work, which provided the model or type for El Greco’s best-known masterpiece, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588), “employed Palaiologian stylistic methods” and follows many of the conventions of Byzantine icon-writing. Where we can detect Venetian influences, they are shared by El Greco with his Cretan contemporaries from the Sinatic tradition.

The composition of the Dormition, showing the death of Mary, skilfully balances the differences between the Orthodox doctrine of the Dormition of Mary and the Roman Catholic doctrine of her Assumption, sensitively balancing contemporary denominational affiliations in Venetian-ruled Iraklion.

32, The Modena Triptych, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The discovery of the Dormition has since led to the attribution of three other signed works of “Doménicos” to El Greco – the Modena Triptych [Illustration 32], which may have been painted before he left Crete and with a centrepiece also depicting Mount Sinai [Illustration 33, detail]; Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (the Benaki Museum, Athens) and The Adoration of the Magi.

33, Mount Sinai, detail from Modena Triptych by Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The notes written in El Greco’s own hand, his unique style, and the fact that he signed his name in Greek, all show an organic continuity between his art and Byzantine icon-writing from Mount Sinai and Byzantium to Crete. According to Marina Lambraki-Plaka, “far from the influence of Italy, in a neutral place which was intellectually similar to his birthplace, Candia [Iraklion], the Byzantine elements of his education emerged and played a catalytic role in the new conception of the image which is presented to us in his mature work.”

The influence of El Greco

El Greco’s contemporaries found him incomprehensible and, apart from his son, he had no important followers. His dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries. But there was a revival of interest in his work in the late 19th century and we can now see him as the precursor of the European Romantic movement. In the 1890s, Spanish painters living in Paris adopted him as their guide and mentor, and he found a new appreciation in the 20th century so that he is also regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism.

His expressiveness and colours influenced Eugene Delacroix and Édouard Manet. To the Blaue Reiter group in Munich in 1912, he typified that mystical inner construction that was the task of their generation to rediscover. El Greco and Paul Cézanne, one of the forerunners of cubism, have been described as “spiritual brothers despite the centuries which separate them.”

34: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The symbolists and Pablo Picasso during his Blue Period drew on the cold tonality of El Greco, utilising the anatomy of his ascetic figures. While Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [Illustration 34] he visited his friend Ignacio Zulogia in his studio in Paris, where he studied El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal [Illustration 35], which Zuloaga had owned since 1897.

35: El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal

Foundoulaki asserts that Picasso “completed … the process for the activation of the painterly values of El Greco which had been started by Manet and carried on by Cézanne.” El Greco’s influence has also been traced in the work of Franz Marc and of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

El Greco and the Greeks

Yet to Greeks, El Greco remains the quintessential Greek artist. In Greece, he is loved not just by experts and art lovers but also by ordinary people. Led by the Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, Greeks were passionate and spontaneous in a campaign that raised $1.2 million to buy El Greco’s Saint Peter for the National Art Gallery in Athens in 1995.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who was born in Iraklion, felt a great spiritual affinity for El Greco, called his autobiography Report to Greco and wrote a tribute to the artist. El Greco has inspired the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (Diary of an Unseen April). In 1998, the composer Vangelis produced El Greco, a symphonic album inspired by the artist. This develops his earlier work, Φόρος τιμής στον Γκρέκο, A Tribute to El Greco (1995). El Greco’s life is also the subject of the recent film El Greco (2006) directed by Ioannis Smaragdis and filmed in Crete.

Conclusion and summary

To conclude: it is an irony of history that icon-writing survived on Mount Sinai through the violence of iconoclasm because of the protection provided to Saint Catherine’s Monastery by Egyptian Muslim rulers. Following the Venetian acquisition of Mount Sinai, that particular approach to icon-writing became dominant in Crete. Through Theophanes, Damaskinos, and other members of the Cretan school and their influence, the tradition of icon writing on Mount Athos was transformed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. And through Cretan icon-writers such as Damaskinos and El Greco, icon-writing burst into the artistic world in Renaissance Europe, and had an indelible influence on the ways in which form, shape and light were used in European painting ever since.

36: The Ladder of Saint John Klimakos, Mount Sinai

Just as The Ladder of Saint Kilmakos shows how Byzantine iconography on Mount Sinai bridges the gap between heaven and earth, those Cretan icon-writers have bridged the gap between Byzantium and the West, they have “set upon a golden bough to sing” and for us to see those sacred, golden things of “what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This paper was read at the seminar ‘Icons in Liturgy and Culture’ in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Saturday 27 June 2009 in association with the exhibition, ‘Icons in Transformation’ by Ludmilla Pawlowska (11 June to 19 July 2009).